Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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Subverting genres and challenging expectations, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is the ultimate fantasy-mystery hybrid. The reader gathers information as Piranesi uncovers secrets about himself and the mysterious place he inhabits. Clarke blends classical iconography with a fresh, lyrical prose. The novel is immersive and addictive, and I finished it in just two sittings, struggling to tear myself away from the gripping story of this curious world.

Piranesi is the tale of a young man who is trapped in a mysterious other-worldly environment, with just the ‘Other’ and some unnamed human remains for company. Together, they are searching for the Knowledge, yet Piranesi’s search leads him to uncover the true nature of his task, his actual identity, and the dark, fascinating narrative which surrounds his home. By the end, he must decide whether or not to return to his former life – which he has no recollection of – or stay in the familiar confines of the House, and the life he has continuously documented.

I prepared myself for a typical fantasy story when I initially sat down with this book, yet I couldn’t have been proven more wrong. It’s hard to place Piranesi in a specific genre category; the novel borrows a number of stylistic elements from the mystery, sci-fi, and literary fiction fields, merging them together to present us with this beautifully crafted yet wonderfully bizarre story.

I also found myself analysing my own views towards ‘knowledge’. Piranesi focuses largely on the issue of our desire to uncover everything, even when it may place us in the way of danger. Our greed-like attitudes in exploring the unknown is reflected in Piranesi; Clarke encourages us to ask ourselves at what cost we seek out information. Even as bystanders, we find ourselves slipping further into this descent of madness and confusion, as the House continues to grip us and we question whether or not – like Piranesi – we would ever really leave the comfort of the watery abode, especially for an uncertain future back in ‘reality’.

This passage on page 60, where Piranesi comes to realise he doesn’t share the ‘Others’ views in searching for the mysteriously named ‘Knowledge’ perfectly summarises these conflicting attitudes:

“I realise that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.”

The House itself is also an interesting and dynamic character. Piranesi moves through the halls with considered care, delicately documenting his obsession for the walls, figures, and curious remnants of a previous life. Much of Clarke’s descriptive skills are given to the House, creating this shadowy setting, heavy with emotion and open to interpretation. I found it hard to settle on one internal image of the House. The blue, watery scene is strong, yet it also quickly developed a life of its own, changing as I became safer within the walls. It becomes harder to regard the House as the ethereal prison it really is, and like Piranesi, I found myself questioning whether or not I would choose to abandon this sweeping maze and return to a life of so-called normality.

Even Piranesi’s rescuer struggles to persuade him to follow her back to reality, especially when Piranesi points out the evil and sadness that exists ‘out there’. Clarke makes us question just who is trapped and where. Perhaps, in losing his sense of reality and succumbing to this limited world, it is in fact Piranesi who has been liberated from the trapping desire to seek the known unknown. Indeed, how he got into his current situation is an excellent example of the dangers of curiosity – is he, in some ways, even deserving of his sheltered life in the House?

Clarke’s prose changes as we become used to Piranesi’s strange way of describing his surroundings, and he begins to evolve his mindset and step outside of his rigid routine and boundaries. It has taken great skill from Clarke to create a character who can so beautifully manifest an isolated world, devoid of most modern influences, and I massively admired the unique way she chose to portray certain elements of everyday life, even the naming of years:

“According to the second system I have given the years names like “The Year I named the Constellations’ and ‘The Year I counted and named the Dead’. I like this much more. It gives each year a character of its own.”

While Piranesi did raise some hard-hitting, introspective and often heavy questions, the mystery elements and unique form of the book still make it incredibly fun and easy to consume. Clarke has played around with diary submissions, record entries and traditional prose to produce a compelling novel, which engages the reader on a whole other level. As Piranesi sifts through these various documents and jumps around in time and place, we too are piecing together the evidence, uncovering the origins of the House, the identity of his ‘peers’, and embarking on this game-like adventure.

I enjoyed my brief time with Piranesi, and the surrounding mystery of his existence, including the baffling world of alternative universes and cult-like communities. This layered, deeply engaging novel is worthy of all the praise and hype it’s receiving. I was left digging deeper into my own morals and questions of existence – the sure sign of an excellent, if indeed mind-boggling, book.

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was first published in more than 34 countries and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. It won British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year, the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award in 2005. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of short stories, some set in the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. She lives in Derbyshire.

Review by Mariah Feria

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